All posts by Karen Tomasik

Veterans Day: reflecting on service, Air Force Memorial

By Tech. Sgt. Karen J. Tomasik
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

Veterans Day is near and dear to my family since many family members have served this nation across several service branches. I’ve attended many ceremonies and services at various locations over the years, but there is a place I have yet to visit on a military holiday – the Air Force Memorial.

Why would I want to spend Veterans Day visiting the Air Force Memorial specifically? It’s because my daughters are finally old enough to notice the details of the memorial and what they mean. It’s a visual representation of me and my husband’s Air Force service, and I’d really like to see the wonder in their eyes at seeing the memorial for the first time.

What I remember most about the first time I ever saw the memorial, was the way the three soaring, shiny stainless steel spires seem to rise up out of the trees when driving up to the memorial site. It was their graceful curvature that took me back to my childhood when I saw the Thunderbirds perform what’s known as the bomb burst maneuver.

I also remember a lot of the news that came out about the design and building of the memorial – some people liked the design while others were very vocal in saying how much they didn’t like it. What mattered to me was my service branch finally having a memorial for our Airmen that captures our mission – much like the Navy’s Lone Sailor Statue signifies the service of Sailors and the Marine Corps War Memorial embodies the courage and sacrifice of Marines.

The memorial is not just for the men and women serving in today’s Air Force but also those who served in early organizations like the Aeronautical Division and Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps; the Army Air Service; the U.S. Army Air Corps; and the U.S. Army Air Forces among others. This is for all of America’s Airmen.

The memorial also features a bronze honor guard statue, which I also identify with – not as a ceremonial guardsman in the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard – but as a young Airman allowed to participate as a member of the base honor guard at McChord Air Force Base, Wash.

The opportunities I had to render final honors for many who served in the Army Air Corps and some who served much more recently really opened my eyes to how much we owe to people who choose to join the ranks of those going off into the wild blue yonder for their country.

As a kid growing up in rural Ohio, I loved watching the crop dusters flying over local farms and enjoyed each chance I got to fly to Texas to visit my grandparents for summer vacations. I’m sure all that, my dad’s service in the Ohio Air National Guard, and my being born in San Antonio, home of the Gateway to the Air Force, played a part in my decision to join.

The Air Force memorial is more than just steel spires, bronze statues, granite walls or the glass contemplation wall honoring fallen Airmen. It shows the American people the spirit of its Airmen through the decades, represents our core values and recognizes the three components that make up our Total Force.

It is a legacy of American Airmen and airpower that I hope future generations, including that of my daughters, can look upon with awe as they remember the great feats we have accomplished and the leaders we have developed.

Photo: The Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., is the site of a dedication ceremony Oct. 14, 2006, at 9 a.m. Organizers braved the cooler afternoon temperatures Oct. 12 making final preperations for the dedication ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Larry A. Simmons)

Medical assistance to Libya


By Tech. Sgt. Karen J. Tomasik
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

The U.S. Department of State requested assistance in evacuating wounded Libyan fighters to medical facilities outside the country that could treat their injuries. See additional information in the photo caption below and see additional photos here. We’ll be updating the set as more imagery from the mission becomes available.

Photo: Airmen from the 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron and a Critical Care Air Transport team from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center unload wounded Libyan fighters from a U.S. Air Force C-130J Hercules cargo aircraft Oct. 29, 2011, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. At the request of the Department of State and directed by the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Africa Command is supporting U.S. and international humanitarian relief efforts in Libya. Specifically, the U.S. military transported four wounded Libyans for treatment in medical facilities in Europe and 28 to facilities in the United States.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chenzira Mallory)

Never forget

By Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras
Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul

QALAT CITY, Afghanistan — It was a day like any other, but one I’ll never forget; it was beautiful, with the sun rising behind the New York City skyline. I was a seventh grader sitting in class waiting for my teacher to call attendance.

Nothing seemed different from the day prior. Children were in the corner rushing to finish last night’s homework as the teacher was walking in with her bag full of books in her right hand and coffee in her left.

“One of my students says he just saw a plane go in the twin towers,” says Michele Mortoral with worry in her voice as she is rushing into my class.

“Tell him to stop kidding around,” jokingly says Jane Lynch, my seventh grade teacher.

My classmates are rushing to the windows to see one of the twin towers on fire, with dark smoke rising into the beautiful blue sky. The sky is beginning to turn gray, as if it is about to rain. My friends are beginning to panic and the teachers are trying to calm us to the best of their ability. There is fear and worry in the room. I am staring out the window wondering; “Why is this happening…Did the pilot fall asleep…Isn’t there a co-pilot?”

We are starting to wonder where our families are. I’m worrying about where my father could be. He is a messenger and does trips between North Jersey and New York City daily. There are days where he has to go in and out of New York City about six times a day. My mother is at her restaurant taking orders, like every other morning.

The teachers at Lincoln School are working really hard trying to continue class to keep it off our minds, but there is no way that is possible. I switch classes, from homeroom to math class. Ms. Rachel Mullane is teaching in front of the class.

Some of my classmates are staring out the window, looking at one of the twin towers burning the sky with smoke like a lit cigar. Some of them are actually paying attention in class, not understanding how big and historical this is. The rest, like me, are sitting at our desks worrying about our families.

“There is the other one,” someone yells, while pointing out the window. His pointing finger freezes in mid-air while his arm slowly shifts from left to right. He is following the plane like a sniper following a target. The class is in complete shock and very quiet, just watching.

At 9:03 a.m., I am watching a Boeing 767 hit tower two in front of my eyes. I am 12-years-old and my eyes are completely dry and focused, but at least ten other pairs of eyes are tearing. My classmates begin to panic. They feel like running out of the classroom, but Mullane is blocking the classroom door so no one can leave class. Safety is a teacher’s responsibility so it’s understandable.

“Attention!” says a familiar voice over the loudspeaker, “We are under attack but we need to remain calm.”

The voice is Michael Ventolo, my principal and a very happy person, but in his tone, I know this is too serious to think of him as a happy person behind the microphone. Fear and worry have just thickened the air. I can smell it.

“Grovert Fuentes” says Mullane, “Your mother is downstairs. Pack your books, you can go home.” I am relieved to know that my mother is well and I can go home with my mother and little brothers. One of my brothers is five and in kindergarten, in the same school as me. My two-year-old brother is at home with the babysitter.

The look my mother has on her face, I have never seen before. She is a brave woman with lots of courage. Her face reassures me that this is a serious situation.

On the ride home, my mother is telling me how worried she is about my father. She can’t get in touch with him. She’s taking red lights and breaking the speed limit. We arrive home and continue calling my father, but no answer. The cell phone towers are down and we can’t get through. The calls that can get through are giving us the busy tone.

For the next few hours, my mother and I are glued to the television, waiting to hear details. At 9:37 a.m., we find out that the Pentagon is also hit. We do not know what to do, nor what to expect, but we do know that the president is about to come on TV and make a speech.

“Today we’ve had a national tragedy,” says the President of the United States, George W. Bush. “Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”

Finally, around 11 a.m., my father calls to tell us he is safe, and has just exited the Lincoln Tunnel, but is stuck in New York City. He is also telling us that traffic is frozen and many people are abandoning their vehicles to run through the tunnel, to the New Jersey side.

5 p.m. comes around and my father comes home. Our family is united and we are happy to see each other again.

A decade later, I am away from my family again.

I am a combat photographer standing on Afghan soil with plenty of Taliban around me. Some ask me why I volunteered for this deployment. On Feb. 21, 2010, shortly after my return from Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Marcos Antonio Gorra died in the line of combat. He was a hometown friend, who died on this same soil I stand on today. He died for freedom and for those towers.

I’ve been exposed to explosives, rockets, and gunfire, yet, I’m still glad to be where I am now; I’m defending what I saw 10 years ago and trying to keep the fight on their soil instead of ours.

Many ask me my reason for joining and I say, “My biggest reason is because of 9/11. It is a day that I will never forget.”

Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, a combat photographer assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, stands on top of Alexander’s Castle in Qalat City, Afghanistan, July 17, 2011. (Courtesy photo)

Please, hang up and drive

By Don Branum
Air Force Academy Public Affairs

If you’ve been in the Air Force for a while, you might know the name Gary Kunich. He worked for European Stars and Stripes around the time I first entered the Air Force in 1999. He retired in 2006 as a master sergeant, but he has never put down the pen: today he writes for local publications in his adopted hometown of Kenosha, Wis.

Today, he has a new message, one that he’s asking everyone to help spread: “Don’t drive distracted. Put away your electronic devices before you start your engine.”

It’s a message he can’t spread by himself, but it’s one that might have saved his son.

Kunich shared tragic news with a group of military public affairs professionals via Facebook Aug. 14: Devin Kunich, 21, had died a few days earlier when a car hit his bicycle along County Highway H in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., in the early hours of Aug. 7.

According to Pleasant Prairie Police Department reports, visibility was poor: the stretch of County Highway H where the accident occurred has no street lights, and a fog blanketed the area. Devin was riding north, on his way home from the Bristol, Wis., Renaissance Faire, where, according to his obituary, he was captain of the Black Swan swing ride.

At the same time, 18-year-old Quashae Taylor was driving along the same road. She was driving without her glasses and had been talking off and on to her boyfriend on her cellphone. She closed her eyes for what she described as a “long blink” as she answered her phone again at approximately 12:45 a.m.

Taylor probably never saw Devin before she hit his bicycle from behind. The impact flipped him onto her car, where he lay for almost six seconds before falling off. Police would later find his backpack, personal belongings and bicycle seat strewn in a 300-foot trail from the impact site.

Taylor slowed down, called 911 and stopped at the intersection of County Highway H and State Highway 165, a mile north of the accident scene. The paramedics who responded pronounced Devin dead at the scene.

As tragically as the events unfolded, one thing stuck out at me: the police reported that Devin was wearing dark clothing at the time of the accident and was not wearing a helmet. They later found a light which may have been on his bicycle at the time of impact.

I talked with one of my co-workers about the situation on Aug. 15. At the time, police had reported not finding any lights or rear reflectors on Devin’s bike. I asked my co-worker, a fellow bicyclist, how I could write a story without mentioning that it might have been impossible for anyone to see Devin until the last second? Neither of us had a good answer.

That answer came a couple of days later, on the evening of Aug. 17. I was talking to my wife as we walked through Garden of the Gods Park, and as I posed the same question to her, I recalled a similar event about a year ago.

I was driving north along Chelton Road, just north of Fountain Boulevard in Colorado Springs, about an hour after dark. A bicyclist, dressed in dark clothing and with no lights on his bicycle, seemingly appeared out of nowhere. I had maybe half a second to swerve just enough to avoid him – and I probably missed him by less than a foot.

Half a second. The blink of an eye.

What if I had been trying to answer my phone instead of paying attention to the road?

Quashae Taylor has no prior record, no criminal history, not even a traffic ticket. Prosecutors have charged her with negligent homicide: she faces up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. The blink of an eye changed her life.

Devin Kunich is dead. The blink of an eye ended his.

Gary and Ruth Kunich must live the rest of their lives without their son. Gary told me he doesn’t want her to face extensive jail time but does want “some jail time and accountability.”

“The hard part is struggling with the forgiveness (balanced with) the accountability,” he said.

But more importantly, Gary and Ruth want people to put the phone away before turning the ignition.

So please, hang up and drive.

Photos: Devin Kunich poses for a photo at the Bristol, Wis., Renaissance Faire in this photo taken by his father, retired Master Sgt. Gary Kunich. Devin was killed shortly after midnight Aug. 8, 2011, by a distracted driver as he was bicycling home from the faire. (Courtesy photo)

Planes break, plans change, people make things happen

By Gene Kamena, Professor
Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.

Mr. Kamena, retired Army colonel, is a professor at Air War College where he teaches leadership. In this post, he discusses the great leadership he witnessed on his way to a conference.

The Air Force has its traditions; I guess a 4 a.m. show time for a 6:30 a.m. takeoff is one of them … at least that was the plan.

The propellers were already turning on the C-130J Super Hercules as we walked out of the hangar towards the plane. The familiar smell of jet fuel sent me back to distant places and other times. I had been here before, but never as a civilian and never wearing blue jeans. I was preparing to travel to the Air Education and Training Command symposium in San Antonio.

Chalk two — my chalk — began loading at 6:30 a.m. The plane started rolling at 7 a.m., but 30 minutes on the ramp seemed unusually long. I knew something was awry. When the C-130J finally came to a stop, my suspicions were confirmed.

The plane was “hard broke,” and I knew this could turn into a long day. However, the NCOs took control, and within minutes, had the passengers divided up and placed on other planes. The plan was that my aircraft would have a two-hour layover at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to pick-up other passengers before flying to San Antonio.

Thankfully, the flight to Eglin AFB was uneventful, except for one thing — the plane’s loadmaster. Having served more than thirty years in the Army had trained my eyes to watch people, particularly NCOs while they went about their duties. I always learned something when watching a good NCO. This loadmaster was one of them. He went about his tasks with a determined purpose. He checked everything, he ensured other crew members completed their responsibilities, and he kept a watchful eye on all the passengers.

The plane landed with a jolt. We were no longer airborne, but the loadmaster was still diligent in his duties. He directed us off the back ramp while the plane took on fuel, led us a safe distance away and kept all the passengers together. After all, herding a group of colonels and civilians is no easy task.

The remainder of our time at Eglin AFB was spent off the tail of the C-130J, watching the plane refuel and waiting for additional passengers to show. The time passed quickly as I conversed with the loadmaster — a great young American.
Staff Sgt. Dave Sanders was enthusiastic about his job, his Air Force and his unit — the 62nd Airlift Squadron from Little Rock AFB, Ark. He took pride in his plane, and it showed. It was also obvious he knew his job, and did it well.

Sergeant Sanders has been in the Air Force for 10 years and wants to continue serving as a C-130 loadmaster; in fact, that is all he wants to do. He is articulate, motivated and professional. Our chance encounter left this retired Army colonel with a sense of satisfaction; the aircraft and the people under the charge of Sergeant Sanders will continue to be in good hands.

A couple leadership points are worth considering, especially for those of us who stay behind a desk or in classrooms a large portion of our day:

— There are great people in the Air Force; you just have to get out and meet them. Take time to speak to enlisted members; ask them their stories. You will be amazed at their professionalism and patriotism.

— The best thing a leader can do, when leading people like Sergeant Sanders, is provide them with what they need to do their jobs … and then stay out of their way.

— Airplanes break and plans change, but people of Sergeant Sanders’s caliber overcome and make things happen.

My first AETC symposium was a good experience. The lectures and speeches were excellent, but I think what I heard and saw at the conference will soon fade. My conversation with an Air Force loadmaster has made a lasting impression.

PHOTO:  The 48th Airlift Squadron trains C-130J pilots and loadmasters for the United States Air Force. Adept, responsive and reliable are words that help describe the 48th’s mission, and their Airmen are ready to hop to it. (U.S. Air Force photo by Steele C. G. Britton)